WARNING: Charlotte tries to keep it clean while telling Millie the Facts of Life.
London – 1842
I was lying on the chaise lounge reading, and nursing a few bruises, when Millie sidled in, which was usually the sign for ‘I’ve done something wrong, don’t be angry’.
‘Charlotte,’ she said, quietly. ‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘The question is not can you ask, but will I answer?’ I said.
She grabbed a chair from the reading table, dragged it over to the side of the chaise lounge and sat. ‘Where do babies some from?’ she whispered. ‘Sally Arton says you find them under gooseberry bushes but there’s never been any under Uncle Sef’s.’
I had a sudden image of Millie peering under the gooseberry bushes in Josef’s garden and coughed. It was unfair, she had no reason to know at her age.
I lowered my book and sat up. ‘You get babies when a man and a woman have sex.’
She frowned at me as if there was some sort of conspiracy going on. Part of me wished she’d asked Mrs Stapleton, I wasn’t embarrassed but I wasn’t built for such delicate conversations. I’d never had one myself.
Perhaps this was an important milestone of motherhood and not one where I should tell myself I had two more attempts.
I sighed. ‘You know men and women have different parts, right?’
‘Of course.’ She sat up straight as if a basic knowledge of anatomy made her very grown-up.
I decided it would be better to keep things relatively polite if that was her definition of grown-up knowledge. ‘A man has a penis and a woman has a vagina. The penis goes inside the vagina. That’s how you get babies.’
She pulled her a face. ‘Boy bits have to go… inside you?’
I opened my mouth, considered for a moment, then said, ‘If you want a baby.’
‘That’s disgusting,’ she said.
‘It really depends on the man,’ I murmured. ‘You can always have sex with a woman.’
‘But if you need a man for babies why would you…’ She leaned forward and whisper, ‘have sex if you can’t have babies?’
I sucked my teeth. ‘Because it’s fun?’
‘Well… you do have to find the right person and want to.’ I rested my elbows on my knees. ‘And that’s important. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. No one should make you.’
‘But if it’s only fun with the right person why would someone make you?’
‘Because some people like to hurt other people.’
‘Like the bad man who tried to hurt us?’
I nodded. Mary seemed to have forgotten about the time Duncan tried to kidnap them and take them back to the man who’d brought them to work in his factory. It didn’t surprise me that Millie remembered, she’d been twelve at the time.
‘I can protect myself,’ she said.
‘Millie, it’s not always enough.’
‘You protect use too,’ she added.
‘I might not always be there.’ I squeezed her hand, briefly. ‘But if anyone ever tries to hurt you they won’t live long enough to regret it.’
She looked at me as if the notion that anyone would ever hurt her was impossible. Perhaps that was how it should be at her age, I didn’t know.
‘So…’ She frowned at the book behind me. ‘If I don’t want to, I don’t have to?’ she said.
‘Definitely,’ I replied.
‘Good. I don’t think I want to do any of that.’ She got up and walked out.
I wondered if she’d pretend that we never had the conversation. Given the sorts of things Bran and I got up to it could’ve been far worse. I lay back down with my book to enjoy a few minutes more peace before Mary woke up from her nap.
The library door opened and Millie came back in. ‘But if that’s where babies come from why does Sally think people find them under gooseberry bushes.’
‘It’s some old story that people tell their children to avoid embarrassing talks,’ I said.
‘Why gooseberry bushes?’
I shrugged. ‘There’s a story behind every story but I don’t know –‘
I sat up.
For months I’d been trying to get Richard’s attention by disrupting his businesses, assuming he was like any other rich man but he wasn’t. Richard was hundreds of years old, there were simply too many branches to cut. Alone I couldn’t do more than make him lose a bit of spare change. If I was going to beat him I needed to know his story.
And I knew who to ask who’d have to tell me the truth.
‘Charlotte, are you alright?’ Millie asked.
‘I think I’ve just solved a problem that’s been bothering me,’ I replied.
‘Oh, well, you might want to solve another problem.’ She pointed towards the window onto the garden. ‘Mary’s just run passed with my practice sword.’
I put down my book and went to save the dragon statue at the bottom of the back steps from another attempted slaying.